December 17, 2016

Moby-Dick and the Virtues of Straight Talk

The Left's relativism and postmodern sensibility have been turned on them. After decades of preaching about the bias implicit in every source and message, we found our ideology successful beyond our dreams, to our horror. Fox News railed against the mainstream media's bias and asserted the legitimacy of their abject partisan nonsense—and it was only the gateway drug to Breitbart and InfoWars and all their despicable brethren. It turns out there is such a thing as truth and objectivity, and the surging subscription rates at the New York Times post-election show how keenly we on the Left have come to appreciate the importance of affirming that.

The fractured and competing narrative voices of contemporary novels are legitimate in their own right. We all see the world differently—just ask any pair of siblings about an event from their childhood, or last week even. Our minds are entire universes but parallel ones, or rather oblique ones, where the overlap in consciousness and perception is always partial. The stream of news, flowing into our heads from radically different sources, only mirrors the stream of perception in general. And the differential in those streams of perception are nothing compared to the terrible, beautiful, radical difference of our minds.

But despite the honesty of the postmodern  project, I can't help but wonder if the annus horribilis of 2016 will yield an artistic return to simpler narratives and affirmations of objective reality. I find myself shying away from the flip, jaded voices of new fiction and turning toward what feels like the solid ground of classics. Moby-Dick, my most recent read, is the most postmodern of non-postmodern novels (some refer to it as "pre-postmodern") for its humor, pastiche nature, variety of mental states, and debatable realism, and yet it feels sturdy and reliable and rich. Those ropes and winches and anchors attach us to a real experience and provide an escape from the paranoid fantasies of a new type of Other. What are the limits of empathy for the Other when those Others are chanting "Lock her up" and saluting like Nazi sympathizers and asserting that Obama is a Muslim ("and no one will convince me otherwise!") or a one-time male prostitute in Southeast Asia?

If bringing to life the variety of experiences in the world and learning to inhabit the consciousness of others was one of the artistic tasks of the late twentieth century, then perhaps rediscovering our connection to reality and objectivity—without retreating into a simplistic reductionism—will be the artistic task of the decades to come. Relying on satire won't do; for all its brilliance it alienates the Other in a way we can't afford. Because artists are artists, it probably won't take any form we can predict. But a turn must be coming.

There can hardly be a more important mission at this moment. A few days ago a man of right-wing persuasion burst into a DC pizza parlor with his gun blazing because he read on a website that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from its premises. I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's warning: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." Finding a path back to a shared rationality is critical to preventing more.

November 10, 2016

The Whispering Enemy

In 1944 Budapest, a woman walked down the street disguised as a peasant. She was part of a wealthy Jewish family that was now hiding from the Nazis. On the street she was recognized by an acquaintance she and her husband had socialized with at glitzy government affairs. Upon being asked if there was anything she could do to help the family, the acquaintance brushed the woman off. And as they parted, she whispered to the Jewish woman, "Now it's our turn."

The incident is recorded in Marianne Szegedy-Maszak's family memoir I Kiss Your Hand Many Times. Among the many horrible stories recounted from her family's past, I found this one the most distressing. It is a reminder of the fissures that lie beneath the surface of even well-functioning communities.

These fissures were evident in the Rwandan genocide as well.  Hutu villagers who had lived and worked peacefully beside their Tutsi neighbors for years turned on them and literally hacked them to death with machetes—hard, vigorous work to hack to death 1 million people over three months. Many of these Hutus were compelled by the military hierarchy to do so on pain of death themselves, but some took to it with enthusiasm after being exposed to a wave of hate radio in the preceding months. Radio was an influential medium in Rwanda, and hosts called the Tutsis "cockroaches" and proclaimed God required them to rid the earth of the Tutsi evil.

The role of local newspapers in Nazi Germany was similar: to inflame or unleash hatred among the citizenry. A book I worked on once on this very topic told of a old Christian woman who had gone to the funeral of her best friend, a Jewish neighbor. Another neighbor wrote a letter to their local newspaper denouncing the woman's attendance at the funeral of a Jew. To which the Christian best friend responded, in perhaps my favorite historical quotation, "Are you drunk?"

These are the moments that come to mind as I begin to process the political events of the last months. One moment of the campaign coverage stands out to me: a video of one of Donald Trump's many campaign rallies. The rally has ended and attendees are leaving the auditorium. One reporter's camera is rolling as an older man in jeans and a red cap walks by. He looks to be in his 60s, maybe 70s. His hair is white, but he has one of those good, solid midwestern faces: nice-looking, like someone who'd be a fantastic grandpa. But he turns to the journalists gathered there and launches into a vile, hateful tirade against the journalists. Letting out an intense emotional hatred for people who had done, essentially, nothing at all to him.

One reason this election season has been so depressing is that it revealed the veiled hatred so many of us have toward one another. Tee-shirts that read "One rope, one tree, one journalist, some assembly required." Statements about "draining the swamp" that are all too reminiscent of previous references to "vermin" and "cockroaches." People writing that Hillary Clinton is "evil, EVIL—she wants to destroy America," inflamed by the emergence of a powerful alt-right media. A Republican official stating that if Trump doesn't win, he's going to pick up his musket. To do what with, exactly? He won't say explicitly, but what do muskets do other than kill?

Some black writers have commented that what white liberals are feeling today is what other minorities feel all the time. And I know that liberals have indulged in hateful rhetoric not just toward the candidate but toward fellow citizens. I appreciate that we have been sheltered, and also that these trends have not yet consumed us. But at one time the neighbors of Rwanda greeted each other warmly each morning. And Hungarian acquaintances dined in shared luxury. And a German woman and her Jewish best friend laughed and chatted as they hung the laundry together in a land not yet torn by war.

September 23, 2016

Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson, who passed away this week, made the type of movies that are becoming more rare these days: neither genre nor totally arty. There was L.A. Confidential, which launched the career of Russell Crowe and put Guy Pearce on the map; 8 Mile, which convincingly portrayed Eminen's early life; Wonder Boys, with Michael Douglas playing a rumpled professor; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, one of the best thrillers ever made; and The River Wild, a thriller set on a whitewater rafting trip. I'd watch any one of these movies again in a heartbeat.

L.A. Confidential and the thrillers come closest to genre, but not in any kind of cliched way. I always think of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) in tandem with Fatal Attraction (1987)—two movies made within a few years of each other whose villains are disturbed women in the throes of a personal crisis, wreaking incredible evil but retaining their complexity and even a touch of sympathy.

But in some ways Wonder Boys is my favorite. It's lovable for its appealing mess of a main character and also for its . . .  I don't know, mildness is actually the word I think of. It's not intense or a rush or hilariously funny or spectacular or sexy. It's just a story, one that offers the lovely and increasingly rare allure of the mid-range. Though I haven't seen it yet, this is the kind of movie I imagine Florence Foster Jenkins to be. Mild, funny, charming, and not without depth.

I also appreciate that that he adapted Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes, a lovely film based on the novel by the quintessential "woman's author." That Hanson saw past the cultural framing of Jennifer Weiner's work as maudlin and feminine, that he saw it as art worthy of cinematic treatment, is one of the most admirable traits of Hanson's career.

September 1, 2016

Suspicious Reading

A lot of talk about literature and culture is knee-jerk. From grad schools to websites, we've learned to take an almost hostile view toward items of popular culture, especially if the cultural product is American and middle-brow (and, I would argue, feminine). We think we have a superior view of a book or movie and can see (unlike the masses) how reactionary it really is.

This viewpoint is the foundation of critique. It is the approach that sees art as disguised ideological messages or conundrums that even the author is likely to be unaware of. Reading becomes an exercise in unpacking the harmful dominant messages that the seemingly innocent text is foisting on us.

There's a lot of merit to that approach. As a feminist critic myself, I do critique all the time. And I still remember with admiration one of the first pieces of critique I read, Terry Eagleton's analysis of The Mill on the Floss.  But it's become a really unthinking and reflexive mindset—horribly superficial and self-satisfied. So it was with great pleasure that I read Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, which takes apart pretty thoroughly critique's death grip on our critical faculties.

Felski's argumentation is too varied to convey here, but to give a taste of it: She discusses Eve Sedgwick, the queer theorist who has begun to question the hegemony of critique: "Sedgwick wonders at the ease with which suspicious reading has settled into a mandatory method rather than one approach among others. Increasingly prescriptive as well as excruciatingly predictable, its effects can be stultifying, pushing all thought down predetermined paths."

"Pushing all thought down predetermined paths" says it well. How many people's response to, say, Twilight is immediately (and predictably and stultifyingly), "It dresses up stalking as romance." Well, it really doesn't, but of all the narratives we've been taught to be suspicious of, romantic ones top the list. Romantic narrative is nearly always interpreted as being bad for women, despite the fact that women seem to love it (a love that is then framed as stupidity or naivete or lack of self-esteem). This kind of interpretation amounts to scanning the horizon for key words or key situations that the critic then gloms onto and pastes a label on. What it's missing is thoughtfulness and an attention to evidence.

Felski's book is academic (which means, among other things, it's way too long and jargony), but it's a good documentation of our efforts to break through the cage of critique and interact more freely—and intelligently—with art.

August 29, 2016

Southside with You

Southside with You has an unlikely inspiration: the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, in Chicago in 1989. Barack and Michelle would marry three years later, but Michelle was resistant to the young law student at first. She was his liaison for his law internship at her firm that summer, and she was wary of how the firm would view any attachment between them—and of his smooth confidence.

The movie takes place over one entire day. Barack asked Michelle to go to a community meeting with him, but after he picks her up, he sheepishly announces the meeting isn't for another few hours. They go to a museum, then lunch in a park, then the meeting, then a movie, and finally the drive home.

This is the first thing I like about the film: its unusual structure. Each event has its own atmosphere: the feel of the streets at morning or night, the changing light and sky. And each event moves their relationship forward, though not always in a straight line. Also, I suspect that most couples have a day like this—a moment early in their relationship where they spent all day long together and that remains memorable because of what was revealed over the course of that many hours together. There have been apt comparisons to Before Sunrise, but I think this film is actually better because more happens. Before Sunrise is a bit of a slice of life, but Southside with You is that plus more.

For one, it's funny. Michelle comes from an accomplished family, and when Barack pulls up in his disintegrating yellow Datsun, Michelle climbs in and finds a rusted hole where her feet should go. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle, and her wry disapproval of Barack is played a little too often—the script's fault more than Sumpter's, I think. But still—funny.

The acting would be virtue number two. Sumpter is a good, solid Michelle: grounded, smart, independent, and lively. But Parker Sawyers is a brilliant Barack Obama. There were times when I had to remind myself that it was an actor and not really Obama on screen. He was the closest to the real subject that I've seen in any biopic. But it's more than just mimicry. Sawyers creates a plausible version of his subject as a young man on the brink of his future. Michelle can see, and we can too, that he could almost go either way. He's so adored by those around him (the folks at the community meeting, for example, not to mention the partners at the law firm), and he's just on that edge between confident and arrogant.

Here's where the day-long format works to advantage. The film provides opportunities for Michelle to see past what might look like overweening cockiness. She's annoyed that he misled her about when the meeting started, but they go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and their mutual absorption in the art brings them back together. They go to the meeting, and the neighborhood's almost cloying love for him makes her roll her eyes; but that's countered by the realization of his obvious investment in these people's lives and community.

Obama's speech at the community meeting was one of the weaker moments of the movie, but only because of the frequent cuts to members of the audience looking skeptical and then eventually nodding sagely. The director could have used a lighter hand here. But the speech itself was everything it should have been, showing his incredible oratory and his unshakable belief in the power of pragmatic, incremental change. While the community's appeal for a recreation center has been turned down, Obama urges them to take "no" as "on"—as in "carry on." The no is just a first step. Then you figure out why they said no and what you can do to address that before trying again.

This principle comes in handy when they go to see Do the Right Thing and Michelle's worst nightmare comes true. They are spotted together by a senior partner. They muddle through, but Michelle gets in the car with a declaration: "now this [meaning them] will never happen." Now he is driving her home and they are subdued. But if we think he's leaving it at that, we don't know Barack Obama. He pulls the car aside at a Baskin-Robbins. Earlier in the day he had bought her a piece of pie, but she turned him down: "I'm more an ice cream kind of girl." As he said at the meeting, figure out someone's objection and then address it. The sweetness of the gesture and his determination, which is insistent but also gentle and respectful, creates an opening for them.

The give and take between them is so key. They are both brilliant and accomplished, but otherwise quite different. She has the most solid of loving families, and he was essentially abandoned by his parents. She is cautious, and he is daring. He challenges her to be less fearful. She challenges him to forgive his parents. Parker Sawyers' understated portrayal of Barack's pain in this regard is just beautifully done. The director, Richard Tanne, never lets the characters slip into caricatures or types. She's serious but not prissy. He's smooth but also soulful.

Likewise the film itself is never a caricature or a type. It has its own unusual rhythm and feel. Quiet and leisurely in a way, it's never political or obvious. But I found it quite extraordinary. Not perfect, but beautiful.  

August 23, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Recently Robert Reich shared a link to an interview on The American Conservative website with the writer J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia in poverty and has just published a book about Appalachia called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. The topic at hand in the interview was why poor whites support Trump, but Vance discusses much more than that.

Vance talks about the challenges facing the type of poor white communities that support Trump. Poor whites are one of the few demographics that you can still mock with impunity. Multiple social crises plague these communities—drug addiction, loss of jobs, family violence. And poor rural whites often like Trump because Trump sounds like them: he's not political or careful. Trump "actively fights elite sensibilities" and spurns the condescension that has been poured on them for decades.

Vance also talks about the virtues of these communities—about his grandmother and others in his community who were admirable and decent and interesting. He notes that the Scots-Irish culture of honor is deeply rooted there. These people aren't stereotypes or cartoons; they are individuals who are persevering amid terrible circumstances and who have rich, worthwhile lives.

Where he falters, I think, is when it comes to politics. There's a strain of criticism in recent years toward liberals who think of themselves as such humanitarians but are revealed to be prejudiced jerks. The 1997 film Waco: The Rules of Engagement is a case in point. The filmmaker toured the country taking down prosperous liberals who sneered at southern idiots who joined David Koresh's cult. The novel The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter skewered white progressives for their hypocrisy and hidden racism. Vance has a bit of this. While Republicans put too much emphasis on personal responsibility and values, ignoring the role of economic hardship and throwing up their hands at the cultural problems, he takes liberals to task for dismissing the agency and dignity of poor whites.

These are not equivalent faults, however. Vance tips his hat at Ta-Nehisi Coates and admits, "Too many conservatives look at that situation, say 'well that’s a cultural problem, nothing we can do,' and then move on.  They’re right that it’s a cultural problem: I learned domestic strife from my mother, and she learned it from her parents.  But to speak 'culture' and then move on is a total cop-out. There are public policy solutions to draw from experiences like this: How could my school have better prepared me for domestic life? How could child welfare services have given me more opportunities to spend time with my Mamaw and my aunt, rather than threatening me–as they did–with the promise of foster care if I kept talking? These are tough, tough problems, but they’re not totally immune to policy interventions."

As for liberals, he offers: "Neither are they entirely addressable by government.  It’s just complicated." Liberals tend to look to economic solutions: to provide financial support and to throw money at schools.  He warns that you can throw money at school, but that won't solve problems if the entire culture is permeated with family violence and drug addiction. In addition, liberal handouts are insulting to a people for whom honor and dignity are so important.

The longer I thought about this, the angrier it made me. It's unfortunate that "handouts" are humiliating to receive, but financial help is better than no help. Schools absolutely cannot make up for toxic home environments, but they can at least provide basic skills and a safe haven and maybe even decent air conditioning and heat and plumbing–and yes, even life skills to avoid repeating the mistakes of past generations. A culture of honor, even if it has roots in "Scots-Irish" heritage rather than ghetto street values, is nothing to be admired, especially if it results in scapegoating and short-term emotional payoff at the expense of long-term well-being.

It's also unfortunate that poor whites respond to these challenges by scapegoating foreigners and Muslims and progressives, who are actually the only ones attempting to understand and address their problems. Vance claims that neither party has done anything to help these communities, but that's patently untrue. It is consistently liberals who try to implement policies to help people help themselves: addiction counseling in jail, early childhood intervention programs, vocational training, safe lead paint removal. Vance claims that poor whites are humiliated by the "Bush/Obama" foreign policy and military failures, that they join the military in disproportionate numbers but that their experience in the army leaves them nothing to be proud of. Well, I'm sorry that we can't conjure up a just war so that people can feel good about their military service; that's a ridiculous thing to expect. And the military failures are, again, not equally the fault of Republicans and Democrats. One party got the US into an untenable fight, and another party recognized it and got us out.  

Vance says early on in the interview: "We need to judge less and understand more." That is precisely the liberal ethic, one that is broadly mocked by conservatives. Liberals are both more idealistic and more pragmatic than conservatives: We believe that we can observe reality, try out practical measures, and see what works. The point is not that culture isn't important–it's everything. But you can't wave a magic wand and change culture. So instead you chip away at the things that might affect culture, things that you might have a chance at influencing: jobs, health care, drug addiction, law enforcement reform. And you, ideally, don't let ideological biases get in the way.

I see ideological biases in conservatives when it comes to issues like legalizing pot or providing easy access to contraception. Vance sees ideological bias in liberals when they fail to admit that troubled communities are characterized by both poverty and single-mother households. He sees this as a turning away from facts and reality–his only example. But liberals de-emphasize single-mother households for a good reason: they are a symptom, not a cause. And in any case, single mothers aren't the problem; absent fathers are the problem. In communities like these, mothers stay and fathers don't. If you don't think women should have children unless they're married, please remember that a marriage license does not create commitment; rather commitment creates a marriage license, or at least something equivalent. Simply bemoaning a culture of single motherhood doesn't help anything. But supporting access to birth control and women's choice does.

I also see ideological bias in statements like these: Vance says, "My biggest fear with Trump is that, because of the failures of the Republican and Democratic elites, the bar for the white working class is too low.  They’re willing to listen to Trump about rapist immigrants and banning all Muslims because other parts of his message are clearly legitimate." I find this statement absurd: that Trump's hostility to immigrants and Muslims is somehow tangential to his appeal. As Vance himself acknowledges just a sentence or two later: "A lot of people think Trump is just the first to appeal to the racism and xenophobia that were already there, but I think he’s making the problem worse." There we can agree.

Vance sees Democrats and Republicans as failing equally when it comes to addressing his native culture. But it takes some fast dancing to make this stick. He seems to have evangelical Christian beliefs, so maybe he has a religious and cultural attachment to conservatism that makes it hard for him to own up to the unequal failures of the two parties. Because, trying to understand? Liberal. Trying to help? Liberal. Avoiding mocking vulnerable demographics? Liberal. And arguing that poor whites can be excused for making bad decisions regarding politics because they feel condescended to? That's a much greater insult to their agency and dignity than anything liberals have offered. 

August 6, 2016

Moby Dick: A Sample (1)

The whole thing is so nice—the alliteration, the ease of it—but that last line takes it to another level:

"In summer time, the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples—long avenues of green and gold. And in August, high in air, the beautiful and bountiful horse-chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms. So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation's final day."

August 5, 2016

Melville's Crazy Genius

I started reading Moby Dick for the first time about two weeks ago. Somehow I was surprised to find it a work of literary genius, despite EVERYONE saying it was a work of literary genius for literally the last hundred-plus years.

I always imagined Melville's prose to be staid and stately. What I found is that it's is much more like Tristam Shandy than The Scarlet Letter. Dude is ALL over the place, in the best way possible. In lesser hands his style might be chaotic or confused, but every piece of it is brilliant by itself and works brilliantly as a whole.

Example: After a normal chapter of exposition, Melville opens the next chapter like a play. The chapter is written like a script, where one by one sailors (or groups of sailors) say their piece, like this:

How the sea rolls swashing 'gainst the side! Stand by for reefing, hearties! the winds are just crossing swords, pell-mell they'll go lunging presently.

Crack, crack, old ship! so long as thou crackest, thou holdest! Well done! The mate there holds ye to it stiffly. He's no more afraid than the isle fort at Cattegat, put there to fight the Baltic with storm-lashed guns, on which the sea-salt cakes!

He has his orders, mind ye that. I heard old Ahab tell him he must always kill a squall, something as they burst a waterspout with a pistol—fire your ship right into it!

Blood! but that old man's a grand old cove! We are the lads to hunt him up his whale!

Aye! aye!

This particular bit of dialogue may not convince a reader that Melville's a genius, but here's a little further on. Two soldiers have gotten into an argument and are about to fight. The other soldiers have made a circle around them, egging them on:

A row! arrah a row! The Virgin be blessed, a row! Plunge in with ye!

Fair play! Snatch the Spaniard's knife! A ring, a ring!

OLD MANX SAILOR. Ready formed. There! the ringed horizon. In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work! No? Why then, God, mad'st thou the ring?

So a fight commences in a ring of onlookers, and Melville writes, "In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work? No? Why then, God, mad'st thou the ring?" Has there ever been a more perfect literary union of philosophy, context, and character than that?

And then Melville finishes off the chapter with this final soliloquy in the voice of a black boy sitting by himself in the ship, having overheard the dangerous plans to pursue the White Whale. I can't begin to parse the racial currents in this novel, but it's hard to think of another great writer of his era sending this raucous chapter by plummeting to the lowest member of the crew—a child no less, and a black one—so poignantly taking up his consciousness, and in one moment showing the cost to the powerless of the foolishness of the powerful:

PIP (shrinking under the windlass). [...] Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! [...] But there they go, all cursing, and here I don't. Fine prospects to 'em; they're on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now [...]  it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

July 31, 2016

The Review of Pond

Cover of the original Irish printing of Pond.

The New York Times review of the book Pond is written by Meghan O'Rourke, and it joins one of a handful of reviews that have lodged themselves permanently in my memory.

The book sounds unusual and wonderful (the review is here). O'Rourke quotes the author from an interview last year: “In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world, so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.” That's pretty great and  conveys Bennett's Wordsworthian message: that getting and spending we've laid waste our power and alienated ourselves from not just the natural world but the miracle of life itself.

But I want to talk about not just this novel but the art form of the review. A good review parses the strengths and weaknesses of an artwork but also conveys something of its particular genius. When Star Wars first came out in the 1977, I was in middle school and saw it ten times in the theater—the most I've seen any movie (of course, no cable or VCRs in those days). After decades of cultural saturation, it's impossible to convey how fresh and magical that movie was. I can barely catch a glimpse of the feeling myself.

The truth is, when I want to remember how Star Wars felt, what I cast back to is the Time magazine review of it that came out before its release. It was a multi-page spread with photos, longer than any review I'd ever seen, and the writer was ecstatic. Literally "ex stasis"—out of the norm. It's here if you can get past the login wall. The images and lines from the movie have become common cultural property, but when I think of the Time review, I have a purer memory of the magic it elicited. Weirdly, the article doesn't seem to have a byline; so thank you, unknown reviewer.

(On a related note, if you get to the issue in Time's archives, you can also enjoy the ads for cigarettes, station wagons, and men's sportswear. Oh, 70s, you were the worst.)

July 30, 2016

Wisdom from Moby-Dick on This Year's Election

"For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. 
This it is, that for ever keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and leaves the highest honours that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. 
Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency." 

March 30, 2016

"A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson

(Eventually, spoilers.)

Kate Atkinson's latest novel, A God in Ruins, arrived to great acclaim. Having read several of her mysteries along with her literary novel Life after Life, I was intrigued. Life after Life was cool: the story of a woman's repeated attempts at survival, as the universe puts her through a series of do-overs in which she gets to avoid the mistakes that killed her in previous lives.

A God in Ruins follows the (single) life of another character from Life after Life, a young Englishman named Teddy who becomes a fighter pilot in World War II. For most of the novel you flit back and forth in his life, from his courtship of his wife, who is bright and clever but whom he doesn't quite fully connect with, to their difficulties with their daughter, who grows up to be a bit of a mess and incessantly hostile to her bewildered father. There are lots of scenes from the war as Teddy grows into his command and guides his team on missions.

There's no doubt that A God in Ruins is an excellent, traditional literary novel. It's written in the style of everyday realism and puts the reader right in the middle of its historical era with great period detail and psychological insight. For me the traditional realism kept it from being anything more than a very good historical novel, and the jumping around from youth to old age to middle age and so on is a trick I tired of the very first time I saw it used in a novel; it's such an automatic generator of pathos (here's the person in the throes of youth, and oh look, here they are as an old person whose dreams never came true) that it feels like a cheap shortcut. I've read the carefully observed period novel a hundred times, so, while I enjoyed the story, a tiny bit of me was thinking, "Why am I reading this?"

Then the ending comes and there's a twist. No doubt this twist makes the whole novel even more moving for those who liked it. It's a good one and it's effective, but here's the problem: It is the exact same twist that appeared in a very famous novel from about ten or twenty years ago that was highly acclaimed, in part because of this very twist, which was a first at the time. This older novel was a phenomenon: the book equivalent of a celebrity among those who read fiction. It took place in the same time period, featured a young man thrust into war, followed a fairly traditional line of realism in its narration (with some notable, incredible expansions of the form), had great psychological acuity, and ended, in the very last pages like Atkinson's novel, with this same revelation. Kate Atkinson, in a postscript to A God in Ruins, goes into unusual detail about the process of writing the novel. She talks about the twist and how it fits into literary theory and also about all the authors she borrowed from in terms of writing about the war. But she never mentions this other author, the one who famously created this very original twist.

Atkinson's borrowing from and lack of acknowledgment of this other author (I'm trying not to say "rip-off") kind of tanked the novel for me. I don't even know if my snooty dismissal is fair. After all, 99.99999 percent of novels use the same forms and techniques as other novels, and that doesn't bother me. In fact, 99.99999 percent of everything is a rip-off of something else: clothes, verbal expressions, music, this blog post. Maybe it's just the fact that what Atkinson borrowed from was so singular. In clothes, if you design a wide-leg pants, no one's going to bat an eye; but if you design a short, square jacket made of pastel tweed with fringed edges, you're going to get called out for lifting it from Chanel.

In the end, what was well done in the novel felt not very special; and what was special felt like a rip-off. As much as I love realistic fiction of this type, it isn't where truly great writing is happening now. For that we have to look farther afield, for those authors who are expanding the form and pioneering new modes of expression (*cough*davidmitchell*cough*).

Spoily Note: The novel that first displayed this twist is Ian McEwan's Atonement. The novel traces the wartime journey of a couple who had been forced into dire circumstances because of a childish deception on the part of the woman's young sister. At the end of the novel, you find that most of the events of the novel never took place because the couple was killed early on in the aerial bombing of London. The young sister grew up to be a novelist and wrote the story that the reader has just finished as a way of imagining what their lives might have been if they had survived—and as an atonement for the irreparable harm that she caused them.

March 6, 2016

Two Notes on "The Witch"

Note 1:  The movie The Witch has gotten crazy good reviews, and it is indeed a compelling, suspenseful movie. Superb acting, cinematography, symbolism, and more. It's uncomfortable viewing because it's so creepy but also because it's based on a colonial New England folk tale, which means that it's all about the dangers of women's sexuality and is obsessed with women's bodies. The movie adopts this point of view—that women are scary and not to be trusted—because it is retelling the folk tale as its 17th-century audience experienced it, not as we today might interpret it. It's absolutely brilliant at putting moviegoers inside the mindset and worldview of these Puritans. (I recommend this book for those interested in delving further into what it felt like to live back then.) But it's a weird sensation to be asked to give yourself over to a story that embraces that woman-fearing point of view so deliberately.

The reality of early colonial life: muddy and hungry.
One of the best scenes of the movie is when the oldest child of the family
fondly remembers the glass windows of their house in England.
It's also maddeningly objectifying. I'm of the opinion that there should be more nudity in film, but we need less of this type of nudity, which is focused on either the horrors of the aging female body or the delectability of the young female body. The opening shot is of the beautiful, angelic face of the prepubescent Thomasin:

And the minute you see that face in the first seconds of the movie, you know that you will end up here:


So inevitable, it's disappointing.

Note 2: The little twins Jonas and Mercy are the most hilarious, brilliant, hateful, lovable, scary characters in the movie and fully deserve the joint Oscars for supporting actors that I expect to see them win a year from now. I mean, just look at these two:

 If they don't scare the bejeesus out of you, nothing else in this film will.

February 10, 2016

"The Sparrow" as Prejudice and Tract

Disliking a work of art is not a common occurrence for me. My response to art is usually either (a) positive or (b) indifferent. I may not like a book, but what do I care if someone else gets something out of it?

I think of this in relation to one of the questions that James Lipton puts to his guests on Inside the Actor's Studio: "What is your least favorite word?" The answer is usually something like "prejudice" or even "moist." But these words are not offensive; they're simply performing their humble duty of representation.

There is a type of word, however, that does not simply represent but acts. Some of these so-called speech acts are benign, like promises. But some words are weaponized. These are words whose only function is to, at the moment of expression, harm the hearer, usually by highlighting the hearer's membership in a vulnerable group (racial, sexual, etc.). These are words worth hating.

So it is with works of art. I guess it's not new to assert that some works of art are harmful; it's what Hitler said about "degenerate art" and Rudy Giuliani said about Beyoncé! It's just that I don't usually assert that. So Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow sticks out.

The Sparrow was written in 1996 and became a kind of cult classic, beloved among progressive, brainy sci-fi fans. The novel is set in the mid-twenty-first century in a time of environmental degradation and social inequality. A group of disparate individuals is chosen to be the first team to seek out alien life on a promising far-off planet. Several years later, the team returns—with only one member remaining, a Jesuit priest who is highly traumatized and announces that everyone else is dead.

What happened on the planet is fed to readers over the course of the rest of the novel in flashbacks. As a novel, it has good points and bad: The writing is interesting, even if the characters all tend to have the same kind of voice. The reader learns the peril of even benign missions to other cultures. The great mystery of what happens to the Jesuit priest is a weak point since it can only be one of a handful of things, so drawing it out feels lame. In the afterword, Russell says that her intention was to take a character who believes in God's individual attention and put that character through a kind of personal Holocaust, in an effort to demonstrate that faith shouldn't be invested in God's intervention in our personal life but rather in God's moral precepts. In that same afterword, she touches on another theme, which is the source of my reaction to this book: the role of procreation in moral development.

The Sparrow is unique in that the villains of the novel are a class of individuals who are childless. And they aren't simply childless individuals who happen to be villains. They are villains because they are childless. As childless people, they are without any investment in the future. They live for aesthetic and sensual pleasures. They are entirely without conscience. They are self-absorbed, highly cultured, and utterly devoid of moral feeling. This was weird for me to read, as a childless person myself. Our culture (like most) has attitudes toward people without children, but those attitudes are usually off-hand and coded. No one comes out and says, "People without children are bad." No one except Mary Doria Russell, apparently.

The disturbing nature of this portrayal has two aspects. First, it's false. Fiction can be made up but it should still be true. There are people without children, without any "investment in the future," who nonetheless lead lives of generosity and, well, investment in the future. Teachers who are beloved by the young students. Citizens who fight for the environment. Albanian nuns who run orphanages in India. And there are likewise people with children who throw bags of trash out their car windows, sit around the house toking cigarettes and pouring secondhand smoke into their children's lungs, who take the small, vulnerable bodies of those very children and do unspeakable things to them. Russell is more like Ayn Rand than any other novelist I know in this regard: She creates an imaginary world that is intended to reflect on our world but that grossly misrepresents reality. It's a tract masquerading as a novel.

The second problem is that Russell picks on a vulnerable group. The idea of the childless as self-centered didn't come to her in a fit of inspiration; it's a stereotype—and an ugly one. Although people sometimes choose not to have children, many people want children and don't end up with them. Those people are reminded daily of what they're missing out on: personal experiences that can't be summarized in any blog post and also a certain societal status. And yet despite people's (in my opinion correct) feeling that those who don't have children are unfortunate, often the attitude is not sympathy but hostility.

A small example: A book club of mostly moms in my neighborhood read Eat Pray Love a few years ago. In this memoir, the childless and husbandless Elizabeth Gilbert travels the world to find herself after a painful divorce. She has beautiful experiences and profound revelations and ends up happy and invested in life. Do you think the reaction of the book club to this story was "Good for her! She found happiness despite her troubles!" Or "She's not lucky enough to have children, but I'm glad she at least had these fun times!" If you do, you don't know humans. No, it was, "Well, sure, if I didn't have children and responsibilities, I could traipse around the world as well." Huff, huff. It's as if the these moms considered themselves both (a) superior in fortune and happiness and (b) the only truly worthy recipients of sympathetic attention because of their burdens and responsibilities. Concomitantly, the childless woman is both (a) inferior in fortune and happiness and (b) unworthy of sympathy or good will. I don't want to exaggerate because Gilbert's book was a huge bestseller, so not everyone felt that way. But I bet that most of us recognize that uncharitable feeling, hopefully in others and not ourselves.

Another example: A good friend of mine was telling me about a teacher at her sons' elementary school that none of the parents liked. This teacher was perceived as not being very warm or accommodating. After a listing of the teacher's faults, she described how this group of moms all agreed that because the teacher didn't have kids of her own, she was not "kid-friendly." I—her childless friend—kept waiting for her to tell me how she spoke up and defended the teacher against this charge, but no. My friend's point was that it was true: This woman's faults were not due to her personality or lack of experience or any of the other factors that could influence her teaching style; they were due to her childlessness. Being childless made her a bad teacher.

This premise—that teachers without children are inferior teachers—is so ludicrously, obviously untrue that it's almost laughable. But social science has shown that, when analyzing a person's fault, humans are quick to attach the fault to the trait of the person that is most out of sync with the group identity. That is why when 20 Muslim men commit a horrific act of violence, we attribute it to their being Muslim and not their being men, despite the fact that being a man is far, far more closely correlated with violence than being Muslim is. This outlier-blaming seems to be a kind of value-neutral tendency among humans, something that comes to us instinctively. But there is almost always an element of bad faith as well, a kind of pleasure that humans get from reaffirmation of their own membership of a high-status group at the expense of a low-status group.

So Russell's novel combines three kinds of statements that should never be combined: (1) a lie (2) that is hostile (3) to a vulnerable subgroup. This is terrible thing to do. Years ago I saw a videotape of Jerry Falwell standing in his pulpit on Sunday morning and telling his parishioners, "Gay people will kill you as soon as look at you." That trifecta is the basis of every genocide in history and innumerable small acts of hatred as well, from "The Jews eat Christian children for Passover" to "Your Tutsis neighbors are responsible for killing the president and must be stopped." The publication of a novel with an offensive thesis is not the worst crime in the world. But The Sparrow should be recognized for what it is: an Ayn Rand novel in which the source of evil is not the charitable people of the world but the childless.

February 2, 2016

Catastrophe and the Artist-Centered Production

The shattering of media into small shards—blogs, podcasts, and nontraditional producers like Netflix—is a beautiful thing. The Portlandia model is creative talents writing, running, and starring in low-cost productions. My new fave in this model is Catastrophe, produced by Amazon. It's created by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, about a couple who get pregnant after a one-night (well, one-week) stand and decide to stay together. So clever. So funny. Sweet. And so, so dedicated to avoiding clichĂ©s. Plus, Carrie Fisher as Rob's mom!

January 30, 2016

On the Theme of Naturalistic Acting . . .

One of my favorite movies for its acting is Once, the indie film of a few years ago that told the story of two musicians in Dublin. The scene in the piano store is one of my favorite scenes of all time. The song is beautiful, but I especially like the beginning of the scene where they're feeling their way through the song. It's cool to see how musicians might work and also to see the little flickers in Glen Hansard's eyes as he realizes Marketa Irglova might be something special, musically. Funny note: Until I went onto IMDb to look up the characters' names, I didn't realize that we never learn their names in the movie.

January 23, 2016

Mr. Turner


The movie Mr. Turner is Mike Leigh's twelfth film, but it feels like what all his films feel like: another installment in a great, lifelong project of documenting human life. Some films are historical (like Mr. Turner and Topsy-Turvy) and some are contemporary (like Secrets & Lies or Another Year). But every one seems devoted to reproducing social life rather than presenting a theme or even a story. A few of his movies have something like a theme or lesson: the durability of family in Life Is Sweet and All or Nothing, the need for openness in Secrets and Lies, or the delicate balancing of social generosity with personal happiness in Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky. But mostly they feel like slices of life, and it's hard to even know why that is so satisfying to watch—but it is. Enormously satisfying and moving.

Mr. Turner portrays the later life of J. M. W. Turner, the English painter known for his impressionistic seascapes. He putters around his London townhouse, meets up with his father, checks out the latest academy exhibit. We have little way of knowing if what the movie portrays is what life was really like in late nineteenth-century England, but it feels like it, maybe more than any other historical movie I've seen. For about the first fifteen minutes of the movie I really couldn't understand what the characters were saying because they were talking in, again, what at least sounds like authentic nineteenth-century English. The language and the relationships aren't translated to our own time's vernacular; instead we are invited to observe their vernacular.

Timothy Spall won the best actor award at Cannes the year the movie came out, and he is utterly believable and immersed. He's also genius at portraying the way all of us are not just one person but many different social persons. He is thoughtless with the maid, free and affectionate with his father, a bit of a showman at the gallery, and all these personae feel like authentic aspects of the same man.

A scene from the movie.

A Turner painting in the movie.

Of course, being a film about Turner, the second most important star of the film is cinematographer Dick Pope, who was nominated for an Oscar for the film. Many outdoor scenes are reminiscent of Turner's own light-filled visuals, but it's not all gauzy light and beauty. There's intimate indoor lighting and neutral street scenes as well. Mike Leigh is also genius at mise en scene, specifically composition. So many shots were reminiscent of Vermeer and Dutch painting in general that my mind kept calling them out as I saw them. This provides the pleasure of recognition and also replicates the particular pleasure that Vermeer and Dutch painting provide.

There is a famous scene in the Italian neorealist film Umberto D of a maid going through her morning routine in silence: lighting the stove, grinding the coffee, and so on. It's a justly famous scene for just the same kind of simple observation of life that Mr. Turner includes. "Observation of life" sounds like a snore-fest, but it's actually fascinating—and nowhere more so than in a Mike Leigh film.